Plotting, obliqueness and The Massacre of St. Bartholemew’s Eve (1966)

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What a crazy rollercoaster ride watching Season Three on transmission must have been. Only the week before the first episode of The Massacre of St. Bartholemew’s Eve (hereafter The Massacre) went out, the series was disintegrating Daleks for us on exotic alien planets. In the coming months there’ll be the high concept sci-fi of The Ark, the surreal fantasy of The Celestial Toymaker and a musical Western in The Gunfighters. And in the middle, the dry old history book of The Massacre. Blimey, who on earth is this show’s target audience?

Last time, I pointed out The Power of Threes failure to explain a few crucial plot points, and promised there was a howler of an example coming up in this post. Given that hint, I doubt if many people would have guessed I was talking about The Massacre. Partly because this story’s a particularly obscure one, and partly because it’s garnered a surprisingly strong reputation for a story nobody’s seen since 1966. Surely The Massacre‘s a quality story? It wouldn’t play us false.

The thing about The Massacre is that it seems worthy. It’s Doctor Who‘s costume drama, it’s Armchair Theatre. It must be good. And it is, but it’s by no means perfect. And it’s a bit of a stretch to call it ‘arguably the best ever Doctor Who story’, as Cornell et al did in The Discontinuity Guide. There’s a tendency to be a bit too kind to The Massacre, because it feels so different to the rest of the series and because it’s more cerebral than most. This is the thinking fan’s story.

But to the howler. In the first episode, the Doctor visits apothecary Charles Preslin (Erik Chitty) where he learns of the recent arrival in Paris of the Catholic Abbot of Amboise. Preslin is a Huguenot, and fears that the arrival of the hawkish Abbot spells bad news for his kind. So much so, that he’s shutting up shop and moving out. The Doctor is intrigued and wonders about visiting the Abbot.

The next we hear, the Doctor has gone on a mysterious mission, as Preslin outlines to a young boy.

PRESLIN: You showed the old man the way? Good. I only hope he succeeds. You were not seen? Let’s hope not. You’ve done well. Good luck, old man. Good luck.

So the Doctor’s off on a mysterious mission. And he doesn’t come back until the final episode. Until then, Hartnell plays the Abbot, because this is a doppelgänger story and he is a dead ringer for the Doctor. This causes no end of grief for companion Steven (the ever reliable Peter Purves) who bounces between Huguenot and Catholic protagonists, and earns the suspicion of both as he tries to work out if the Doctor is impersonating the Abbot.

At the end of the third episode, the Abbot has botched an assassination attempt, fallen foul of scheming Marshal Tavannes (Andre Morrell, he of Quatermass and the mellifluous voice) and is murdered. Thus Steven believes the Doctor to be dead, and early in the fourth episode returns to Preslin’s shop to look for the TARDIS key.

But then, the Doctor shows up! Hooray! Time, you would think, for the answers to a couple of important questions, such as:

Was the Doctor impersonating the Abbot?

Frustratingly, we never hear Steven ask this of the Doctor so we never get a straight answer. But it seems not, because Steven saw the Abbot dead and the Doctor is fighting fit. And there’s this short exchange:

DOCTOR: I told you not to get involved.

STEVEN: Look, I tried not to, but the Abbot did look like you.

And that’s all we get. So although it’s far from clear, it looks like this is a case of a purely coincidental exact resemblance (see also The Enemy of the World, The Androids of Tara and Black Orchid). This leads to the next question:

If he wasn’t impersonating the Abbot, then where was he and what was he doing?

And to this there is just no answer. The closest we get is the Doctor saying he was ‘unavoidably delayed’ and you’d think Steven deserves a better explanation that that. So what was this mission that Preslin said he was on? Was it simply finding his way back to the TARDIS?

(I prefer the explanation in John Lucarotti’s novelisation, in which he actually does impersonate the Abbot under duress from the Huguenots. Has a novelisation ever deviated so much from a TV story? Worth tracking down, eBayers.)

Anyway, it would be unthinkable for a modern Who story to drop its lead character without explanation for half the story. But in The Massacre‘s case, it makes a difficult-to-penetrate story even harder to fathom. If you’re not familiar with the tensions between the ruling Catholic elite and the Protestant Huguenots in the 1570s (and I wonder how many schoolkids watching this on transmission in 1966 would have been), The Massacre doesn’t go out of its way to help you out. Other historicals like The Aztecs and The Crusade at least give us a villain to side against with our heroes. But here, Steven is equally alienated both from the Catholics and the Huguenots. In its quest to demonstrate the complexities of religious conflict, The Massacre gives us no one to barrack for and against, at least not until the final episode, when Tavannes and Queen Mother Catherine de Medici (Joan Young) launch the massacre itself.

Then there’s the complexities of its ideas. What would young viewers have made of its Doctor-less second episode, in which Steven learns of the Catholics’ plot to kill ‘the sea beggar’. After various debate between factions, the episode ends with Huguenot leader Admiral de Coligny (Leonard Sachs) revealing that due to his sympathies to the Dutch in their conflict of Spain, he has become known as ‘the sea beggar’. Which means, it’s him! He’s the target! And um, what does that mean again? It’s hard to imagine the young’uns on the edge of their seat for that lot. As cliffhangers go, it’s hardly a Dalek emerging from the Thames.

If I could have one episode on this story back from the dead, I’d choose the third, Priest of Death. It’s the episode which features Hartnell as the Abbot the most, but it also has what sounds like a brilliant performance from Barry Justice as Charles IX. He’s so bored he can’t even face talking about his own nation’s impending war with Spain, something which might have warranted some attention you’d think. But spoilt King Charles would rather play tennis. He’s the one Catholic  who’s sympathetic to Huguenot de Coligny, so you’d expect him to be outraged when he hears of his murder. And so he is, but he has to be dragged from tennis court to royal court to hear the news. His reaction is deliciously petulant: “Will I never have any peace?!” Tennis players. They’re notoriously touchy.

But if we’re playing the ‘rescue one episode’ game, there’s also the fourth episode, Bell of Doom to consider. It contains the famous scene where Steven, sickened by the Doctor’s decision to leave serving girl Anne Chaplet (Annette Robertson, who plays Anne with a Somerset accent so we all know she’s working class. French accents being optional throughout the story.) behind amidst the massacre, angrily quits the TARDIS. It’s a groundbreaking scene; never before has a companion so roundly criticised the Doctor and backed it up by leaving him. It’s influential too; we can see the modern day equivalent in Kill the Moon and the same argument played out to a different result in The Fires of Pompeii. But ultimately, the praise heaped upon that scene is another example of us being a little too kind to The Massacre. Because the outcome of that scene is… nothing. Steven reboards the TARDIS minutes later, and the dispute given no more air time. It was an empty threat for sure.

But there is a nice touch at the end where the TARDIS materialises in 1966 specifically to pick up Anne’s maybe descendant, Dodo (Jackie Lane, debuting here). Given the erratic nature of the TARDIS’s navigation, surely this is one coincidence too many. Perhaps the destination was chosen by the TARDIS in response to the argument between Steven and the Doctor, in order to settle the quarrel. How random to find in this history lesson of a story an early indication of the time machine’s sentience.

LINK to The Power of Three: both feature ancestors of companions.

NEXT TIME: Slag, ash and clinker. They are the fruits of The Mutants.

 

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Suspension, contrivance and The Power of Three (2012)

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Years ago, I saw Speed (or as Homer Simpson calls it, The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down) at the cinema. I remember that although I knew nothing about when I went in, I was soon captivated by this crazy, adrenalin ride of a film. The audience was engrossed in it too; I could sense that collective tension as Keanu and Sandy’s situation on that wretched bus got worse and worse, Dennis Hopper cackling wildly at them on the phone.

At some stage mid-film, having survived all manner of exciting incident, our heroes divert the bus onto a freshly completed motorway. Except the motorway turns out not to be finished and the bus has to leap across the unbridged gap between sections of road. At that point, the spell was broken. The audience groaned in disbelief. The film had stayed on one side of plausibility up until then, but now it seemed ridiculous.

I always remember that as an example of how much latitude an audience will give a story. Bomb on a bus? OK. Can’t go under 50 miles per hour? Sure thing. Bus jumps a gap in a motorway? Sorry, I’m out. I’m unwilling to suspend my disbelief any longer.

There are a couple of moments like that in The Power of Three. In it, as you’ll recall, the Doctor (Matt Smith, all arms and hair) has come to stay with comPondians Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill) and Rory’s father Brian (Mark Williams, representing fatherhood again) as the world is invaded by mysterious black cubes. For a long time the cubes are benign, but one day they suddenly they spring to life and start attacking people. It’s action stations. Rory being a nurse, gets called into work at the hospital.

RORY: I have to get to work. They need all the help they can get.

BRIAN: Let me come, help out.

RORY: Take your dad to work night, brilliant!

No, not brilliant. Ridiculous. Why on earth would Rory take his Dad to work with him? They suddenly let unqualified volunteers assist at hospitals, do they? Especially during emergencies? The most irritating thing about it is how easy it is to write around. Brian could easily have been mildly injured by one of the cubes, hence making it logical that he should go to the hospital with Rory. Simple.

Of course it’s a contrivance to get Brian in place at the hospital, from where he’ll be kidnapped later in the episode for reasons which are never explained. He’s the latest of a number of hospital patients to be kidnapped by men with empty hexagon shaped mouths, again for reasons which are never explained. (That’s brazen, you might think, but actually it’s nothing compared to something which goes unexplained in our next random story. Oooh, look a teaser!)

It turns out the person behind the motiveless kidnappings and the deployment of the cubes is a space baddy called the Shakri. The Shakri (a criminally underused Steven Berkoff) has seven portals placed around the globe. And one of them, it turns out, is conveniently nearby. In fact, it’s at the hospital where Rory works. What luck! Only seven in the world, and one of them is in London. In fact, in the very spot where two of our friends are. What are the chances?

Perhaps it was one of these happy coincidences which broke The Power of Three‘s spell on you. If not, perhaps it was one of the other credulity straining moments. Was it when Brian sat in the TARDIS for four days seemingly without food, water or sleep? Was it when the creepy little droid girl was still in the hospital months after we first saw her, in the same clothes, and no one had noticed? Or perhaps it was when one of the alien cubes was shown to be playing ‘the birdie dance’ over and over.

Or maybe none of these things bothered you. Because let’s face it – we’re talking about a show about a regenerating alien in human form who travels through space and time in a ship disguised as a police box. Any claim to realism went out the door the moment Ian and Barbara burst through those big white roundelled doors back in 1963. Why should it bother anyone if the alien base is just around the corner or if Brian can watch a cube for the best part of a week?

I don’t know why, but it does somehow. It’s that step too far. It’s that collective groan from the viewers of Speed. Time Lord? Right. Spaceship phone box? Fine. Birdie dance? Oh no, no, no, no, no.

The Shakri’s plan, as it turns out, is to lull everyone on Earth into a state of complacency and then use the cubes to induce heart attacks, taking out a sizeable chunk of humanity. The Doctor has to think fast… But luckily there’s a magic switch to hand; he simply reverses the process and everyone lives. Again, it’s all a little convenient, but it’s fitting for a story which has had to contrive a way through its own plot.

But to be a little kind to The Power of Three (and let’s face it, I haven’t been so far), I think the coincidences and conveniences which drive the plot are… well, if not deliberate then appropriate. If we concentrate on them, we’re missing the point.

Because the heart of this story is not in your standard alien invasion plot; that’s just decoration. The real story is of the strong ties of friendship and what they can compel us to do. (Not for nothing does this story reference one of the Doctor’s oldest friends, the Brigadier. Ah look there’s fatherhood yet again). As the Ponds eventually find out, if you stick around with the Doctor too long, something bad’s going to happen. But of course that’s never stopped anyone hanging out with their friends, no matter how dangerous they are. That’s the real power right there.

LINK to Night Terrors. They share the same TARDIS team sure, but they also both feature lifts as the gateways to other worlds.

NEXT TIME… I know nothing about Vassy or the Catholics or half of what you talk about, but we’re having a stab at The Massacre of St Bartholemew’s Eve anyway.

 

 

 

Fathers, children and Night Terrors (2011).

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It’s time, as I’ve threatened previously, to talk about kids. The little Daleks are everywhere these days. And it’s since Steven Moffat took over as show runner. By my reckoning 42% of stories he’s EPed have featured children in major roles. By comparison, Russell T Davies era had 23% of stories with prominent roles for kids, and three of them were written by Moffat.

It makes sense to include kids in the show as audience identification figures, and we often see them in familiar locations; bedrooms, school rooms, playgrounds. Night Terrors centres on a child’s bedroom, the place to where, one imagines, a child may retreat after watching Doctor Who and relive that episode’s scares. Long shadows and creaky doors amplifying the heebie jeebies.

Kids have parents more often than not in modern day Who, so parenthood gets examined regularly. We’ve met parents of all the recent companions and the Ponds became parents during their tenure. Mothers and fathers abound, and particularly in the Matt Smith era, we meet a lot of fathers.

And there’s a clutch of stories in Series 6, where we seem to be meeting fathers every week. Night Terrors is one of them, but think of A Christmas Carol, The Curse of the Black Spot, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People and Closing Time. Add to this A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler in which we see Rory as a Dad, and it’s clear that fatherhood is on the mind.

So here’s a few things we learn about fathers from Moffat’s Who.

They’re a bit hopeless. A la Alex in Night Terrors and Craig in Closing Time. Fatherhood bewilders them. They get a bit overwhelmed, poor dears.

They can be terrible role models. If your Dad is Elliot Sardick or Henry Avery in particular.

They will come looking for you. Right across the universe in Rory’s case.

They love their kids, even if they aren’t the biological father. Ask Ganger Jimmy, or Alex who finds out his kid’s an alien.

The power of their love can solve everything. It can convince you to destroy your make believe world and blow the heads off Cybermen.

Generally, they have sons, not daughters. Except Rory.

And the kid tends to do something which inspires a climactic act of heroism by the father, transforming them into a better man. Yes, this is terribly cliched. But it’s kind of in Doctor Who’s DNA; “need a kid to get into trouble” was, after all, part of its initial brief. In a 45 minute adventure series, it’s sort of inevitable that the kid’s going to end up strapped to the railroad tracks in the final reel. (That’s a metaphor, by the way. I’m not advocating for strapping kids to railroad tracks.)

Stories about kids and parenthood never happened in old Who. That’s right never. Well, hardly ever. Occasionally a father got murdered and their daughter became a companion. And actually, kids were rarely present in old Who. How many pre teenage kids with speaking roles in old Who can you name? There’s the boy in The Reign of Terror, the girl in Castrovalva, Squeak in Survival…. Um that’s about it. And they certainly aren’t pivotal roles, like young George (a charming performance from Jamie Oram) in Night Terrors.

So old and new Whos have made conscious and opposite decisions. One to exclude kids from its narrative and one to feature them heavily. Old Who‘s reasons may well have been practical. Was it just too hard/expensive to cast kids? Or was it that they were considered too great a risk? Children’s performances being unpredictable at best. Or perhaps it was just that there was no need; the producers found that it was perfectly possible to thrill, amuse and enthrall children without including a kid in the story.

It’s that last possibility that make’s new Who’s fascination with kids all the more mysterious; the show doesn’t need them. Works perfectly well without an audience identification figure for the little ‘uns. So as I’m feeling a bit listicle this random, let’s see if we can list the advantages of including kids.

They illustrate a character’s origins and show how they’ve changed. Time and again Steven Moffat uses this trick. And a show with time travel at its heart certainly offers the chance to see a character as both adult and child. But in addition to this…

They help explain their adult equivalents. Think River Song, Doctor Simeon and most recently in Listen, the Doctor. We understand them a bit better because we’ve seem them as kids.

They ask a lot of questions. Which means you can give the companions a break from plot exposition.

They up the dramatic ante. If a kid’s in danger, it feels just a little bit more serious. (It shouldn’t though. Doctor Who‘s never been brave enough to kill a kid. It leaves that to Torchwood.)

And there’s one other possibility. That the kids are there for audience identification, but not for children watching to identify with, but adults. They remind adult viewers what it was like to watch classic Doctor Who.

This is particularly relevant to Night Terrors, and demonstrated by one scene in particular. Alex is in the front room, being hassled by creepy landlord Purcell (Andrew Tiernan) for the rent money, which Alex can’t pay because he’s out of work. Alex, being the hopeless Dad, is clearly terrified and to be fair Purcell has brought along a brutish looking dog.

George meanwhile can hear all this from his bedroom. Luckily, the Doctor is there. With a swish of his sonic screwdriver, he brings all of George’s toys to life, as easily as if turning on a remote. George’s world is suddenly filled with fun and wonder, the troubles of the outside world forgotten. That’s the power of the Doctor, and its an experience which no doubt countless adult viewers can relate to.

And that’s ultimately why kids are so often in new Who. To them, the Doctor is simple. He’s pure, unadulterated (great word, that), magical hero. And adults like remembering that feeling. They had it too before growing up. It all boils down to that really: nostalgia.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: ‘He hates clowns’, says Alex and one stage. ‘He hates crayons’, say the subtitles. ‘Understandable’, says the Doctor. Not really. Later he says, ‘See these eyes? They’re old eyes.’ ‘They’re all lies’, insist the subtitles.

LINK TO The Runaway Bride. Each begins with the TARDIS being unexpectedly infiltrated.

NEXT TIME. I can’t wait for day 68. Until then there’s The Power of Three.

Celebrity, casting and The Runaway Bride (2006)

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8 July 2006. The broadcast date for Doomsday in the UK. The episode reaches its devastating conclusion, and the Doctor is alone, crying in the TARDIS. But there’s a surprise in store. Suddenly, a bride is in the console room. Then she turns around, and blimey! It’s TV comedy star Catherine Tate! How very dare you!

Shortly after that (or even before it, as international time zones dictate), the episode is bit torrented around the internet and is being enjoyed by fans all around the world. If you were in Australia, the moment went more like this: The episode reaches its devastating conclusion, and the Doctor is alone, crying in the TARDIS. But there’s a surprise in store. Suddenly, a bride is in the console room. Then she turns around, and um… who is that woman?

The Catherine Tate Show was yet to air in Australia by Christmas 2006. Probably in the US, Canada, New Zealand and all sorts of other Who sales territories, I expect. The point is the casting of a well known performer or a celebrity with a high profile in the UK – stunt casting, as it’s called – doesn’t necessarily have the same impact when viewed around the world.

So let’s say you’re an Australian fan, and you’ve just watched Doomsday. Confused (rather than thrilled) by the surprise ending, you read the credits and discover that the Bride is played by Catherine Tate. Next stop Google: who is Catherine Tate? Why is she suddenly on my favourite show? And why does Doctor Who expect me to know who she is?

And so you swot up on Catherine Tate. Oh, she’s a comedian. Oh, her show’s popular in the UK. OK, she’s stunt casting. Great. Now I’m up to speed.

This is familiar territory to Australian fans (and I suspect to all non-UK resident fans). It went on during the classic series: your Beryl Reids, your Ken Dodds, your Faith Browns. All celebrities whose import was lost on us. Hale and Pace we knew as their show had been shown in Oz. Nicholas Parsons had at least been a punchline on The Goodies.

But the most potent pre-Tate example from the classic years is Bonnie Langford, cast as companion Mel in 1986. Her varied career, which included a lot of song and dance, caused her Who performance to be greatly prejudged. Much of this critical commentary came from the UK, and was reported in the fan press in Australia. Langford was not well known in Australia then (or now, I suspect), and so much of the outcry was hard to contextualise for Australian fans. I found myself trying to imagine an Australian equivalent, and the closest I came to was Rhonda Burchmore, the vivacious, red headed song and dance performer.

(Rhonda Burchmore as a companion. How does that sit, Aussie readers? I think we’re getting close to experiencing the original Melshock.)

The upside of this is that non-UK fans were able to view Langford’s performance without the associated baggage complained of by British Who-heads. (I still have no idea what a ‘Violet Elizabeth Bott’ is). There was no instant reaction of seeing Langford’s celebrity image jump out of a Doctor Who story at you. We viewed Mel in a way UK fans could not.

Sometimes it works in reverse. Langford’s co-star in The Trial of a Time Lord  was Michael Craig, in the early 1990s well known in Australia as a crusty old doctor in medico drama GP. To this day, he looks very out of place in that Vervoid story to me. I expect him to be handing out prescriptions and bitching about patients.

Years later, The Christmas Invasion featured Adam Garcia, latter day dance show judge, but then not widely known in the UK. But in Australia, he’s forever that guy from ‘blokes take up tapdancing’ movie Bootmen. So in every second scene it’s ‘Look! Adam Garcia’s on Doctor Who!’ So it is possible for international viewers to be distracted by celebrity casting. And Peter O’Brien, star of bloody everything on Aussie TV, is a weirdly familiar face in the otherwise gripping The Waters of Mars.

The biggest example though, shared by UK fans, Australian fans and fans all over the world, was Kylie Minogue, guest companion for 2007’s Voyage of the Damned. I found myself watching that episode actively trying to put her celebrity aside. ‘Concentrate on her performance! I can’t, it’s Kylie!’ Does that casting work? Yes, in a sense that it was watched by about a gazillion people. Did she effectively transcend her celebrity identity though? Does it even matter?

New Who started of course by casting a celebrity in Billie Piper (not hugely well known in Australia, but there were more than a few copies of Honey to the B on cassingle lurking in Aussie homes), a move which proved shrewd in many ways, the most important being that she gave a great performance. But like Kylie, she also attracted a fan base and generated media attention.

And it struck an early note for the new series that casting actors with a profile can work. These days it’s the norm; we expect big name stars in the show. Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon and John Hurt fall into the ‘respected thesps’ category. David Walliams, James Corden and Frank Skinner are (like Tate) the ‘comedian/actor’ type. Richard Dawkins, Patrick Moore and McFly are the ‘big enough names to exist in both Doctor Who and the real world’ type (but to be fair these are more jokey cameos than legit performances).

Catherine Tate as it turns out is unique; the only stunt casting to transfer to a series regular.(Langford is also stunt casting, but was always intended to be a regular) And a hugely successful one; Doctor Who Magazine‘s first 50 years poll showed Donna to be readers’ favourite companion after perennial favourite Sarah Jane Smith. Proof, if any is needed, that the right person in the right role works regardless of their previous track record. We can expect more of this to come.

We eventually got to see The Catherine Tate Show in Australia. For me, watching it was experiencing stunt casting in reverse; it was ‘that woman from Doctor Who‘s sketch show’. And of course it was excellent. The first episode I caught included a running series of sketches about the persecution of redheads. Tate played some redhead political prisoner. Finally one day her struggles pay off and she’s released from prison. She hears that a biopic of her is in production. ‘Who’ll be playing me?’ she asks. ‘Bonnie Langford’, the answer comes back, and Tate walks proudly off. How appropriate! The original redhead stunt casting companion.

LINK to The Macra Terror. Both have creepy crawly monsters; crabs and spiders respectively.

NEXT TIME… You’re not from Social Services, are you? We’ve got a bad case of the Night Terrors.

Mind control, mine controls and The Macra Terror (1967)

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“Don’t just be obedient,” the Doctor tells companion Polly during The Macra Terror. “Always make up your own mind.” Good advice, and particularly Troughtony advice, if you ask me. This era of the program is all about the personal freedom to be different.

Think of the second Doctor’s most familiar adversaries, the soulless Cybermen (God knows I have recently, having randomed both The Wheel in Space  and The Invasion). They are an emphatic expression of uniform conformity, and what mankind might look like with all its quirks and peccadilloes removed. Think of The Faceless Ones, where the threat is that humankind might be taken over by the identity-less Chameleons. Think of The Web of Fear or Fury From the Deep where big, intangible bad guys zombify humans and delete their personalities. Think even of off-the-wall bedtime story The Mind Robber, where the ultimate threat is that a computer with ideas above its station that wants to enslave the minds of Earth. “Sausages!” the Doctor says on that occasion. “Man will just become like a string of sausages, all the same!”

The Macra Terror has a slightly different take on the loss of personal freedom, though. It’s not so much freedom of expression that its enslaved human population lacks (there’s too much music and dancing for that), but the lack of free will. Not so much a string of identical sausages as the right to be a sausage in the first place, I suppose.

In this story, the human inhabitants of a futuristic colony mine gas to feed their overlords, a race of giant crabs, the Macra. The humans don’t rebel because the Macra brainwash them as they sleep, and condition them into lives of toil alternated with a series of jolly, holiday camp activities. They sing and chant and hold dance competitions.

(Even for Doctor Who, the combination of threat and jollity is an odd juxtaposition. And it’s signposted in the first few minutes. The story opens with an extreme close up of a desperate man’s eyes and the thump of a heart beat, like some French new wave film. Then we cut to a marching band complete with an eye-watering electronic fanfare. It’s bizarre, arresting stuff.)

So successful is the Macras’ brainwashing that the humans never think to ask why they mine the gas, or why they never see their Controller in person (he always appears to them in a static, Big Brother style photo). They’ve been made passive, unquestioning slaves, spurred on by shrill motivational jingles piped in like musak. (This, combined with one of Dudley Simpson’s harshest electronic scores makes this story a listening experience to put your teeth on edge.)

And people being hypnotised into passivity is a theme that runs through all three of Ian Stuart Black’s Who stories, so it seems that the loss of free will was a prime concern of his. In The Savages one class of people sucked the life force out of another, leaving the victims passive nobodies. In The War Machines, a mad computer hypnotised people over the phone and forced them to make killer robots.

And although the terrible Macra have a similar modus operandi, they remain a mystery to the audience. We see their big crabby carapaces in the dark, and through portals, always obscured (or so it seems from the telesnaps). Their origins are similarly vague. Are they native to this planet or did they travel here? Why the elaborate scheme to oppress the humans? Surely any species clever enough to concoct and operate such a set up can mine its own gas. Or is it as prosaic a reason as that the Macra can’t operate the precise machinery required with those nasty old claws?

But we should never let plausibility get in the way of a Doctor Who story. I think the story’s concerns about brainwashing are more interesting. Because Who doesn’t do brainwashing. Mind control, yes. But the subliminal feeding of information to influence your behaviour and make you work against your allies? The Macra Terror’s certainly the only story that addresses it explicitly (although we can nod in the direction of The Keys of Marinus: The Velvet Web, and a couple of Malcolm Hulke stories). Here we hear the voices infiltrating the sleep of our heroes and see the results of it when companion Ben (played with consistent earnestness by Michael Craze) turns against his friends.

My limited reading about brainwashing indicates that it gained potency as an idea post the Korean War, with the notion that Korea and China both practiced brainwashing on US prisoners of war. So it makes sense that Ben, the TARDIS crew’s military man, is the one who succumbs here (also, Polly had her mind taken over in Ian Stuart Black’s last script, so it was probably time to mix it up).   The method used here is whispering instructions to the subject during sleep. It works a treat on Ben, but our other heroes – notably Jamie – avoid it.

I single out Jamie, because as I noted when randoming The Highlanders, Ben is on the way out and this is his last full story. Jamie gets the heroic young lead storyline, Ben gets the siding with the bad guys one. To me, it looks like a way of trialling what a Doctor-Polly-Jamie line up would look like, and sadly the answer for Ben is, just fine. It wasn’t meant to be as both Polly and Ben jump ship next story, but that line up is one of Doctor Who’s roads untravelled.

Ben’s brainwashing puts me in mind of The Manchurian Candidate, more often attributed as an influence on The Deadly Assassin. Specifically the 1962 film, where a young man is conditioned to commit treason and murder. It doesn’t go so far here, because the story demands that Ben break free of his conditioning and help save the day.  But still, Doctor Who at this time was often about the potential dangers presented by the modern world; it makes monsters out of limb replacement and threats out of holidays abroad. In this context, The Macra Terror seems to be suggesting that brainwashing of citizens is a plausible scenario: it could happen to you.

It may be going too far to suggest the Macras are a stand-in for communism, but then again… the loss of individuality, the loss of free will, the duped populace and a mind control technique allegedly practiced by communist governments and cribbing from The Manchurian Candidate… Put these things together and there’s certainly a reading to be made along those lines. If that’s too long a bow to draw we can at least say that The Macra Terror is rife with Cold War concerns.

But don’t take my word for it. As the Doctor says, always make up your own mind.

LINK to The Invasion. Both Troughtons of course, but both also feature underground threats and, you guessed it, mind control.

NEXT TIME… Santa’s a robot! We walk down the aisle with The Runaway Bride.

 

Reputation, blockbusting and The Invasion (1968)

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We watch The Invasion now in a post-Web of Fear world. We’ve long known that this iconic Cyber adventure was spawned because Doctor Who‘s production team had impressed themselves with the one with the Yetis in the underground. But now we’ve got 5/6ths of The Web of Fear to look at, we can see the similarities writ large. In The Invasion‘s later instalments, Cybermen stalk London’s underground sewer system (it’s lucky they don’t have Cyber noses). But watching those scenes now, it feels more like a retread than it did before we got those missing eps back. Monsters, tunnels, Camfield. If it’s working, don’t change it.

It could have felt even more like The Web of Fear with Cybermen, if that story’s supporting characters Professor and Ann Travers had made an appearance as originally planned. Apparently this would have meant more payment to Yeti writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, but relations between them and the production team might have been a bit frosty since their last story had an episode cut off it for being a bit dull. The Professor (that lazy use of that title again) is halfheartedly replaced by another. But Ann, although not directly replaced, has made her presence felt. We can see now from Web that Ann developed a companion-like rapport with the Doctor. It’s not too hard to believe she’s an influence on subsequent brainiac companions; pocket rocket Zoe who features here and more overtly Liz Shaw who’ll take over next season.

But there’s plenty of other stories which The Invasion steals from. It’s not difficult to see the influence of that other recently returned gem, The Enemy of the World. They both seem to be desperately tying to break away from formulaic ‘monsters attack isolated humans’ stories around them. Both have gunfights, helicopters and hop confidently from location to location. And if we think of Enemy as Who‘s attempt at a James Bond film, it’s got nothing on The Invasion which basically has a Bond villain at its core in slimy Tobias Vaughn (a powerhouse performance from Kevin Stoney).

The Invasion is Vaughn’s show. He’s all style in his Nehru jacket, striding up and down his posh London office (which in a nifty cost saving measure is the same is the same set as his posh country office). Stoney plays him with silky politeness, punctuated occasionally with sudden outbursts of fury. He only needs to be stroking a fluffy white cat to complete the picture. ‘No, Doctor Who, I expect you to die!’ he really should have got to say.

He, of course, has an incompetent henchman, the hapless Packer. Or Packaaah! as Vaughn expansively calls him (this has become a common refrain around Chez Spandrell; ‘Packaaah, take out the garbage will you?’). Packaaah, as played by Who stalwart Peter Halliday, is the picture of floppy fringed dimness. He’s not helped by a communications device strapped to his wrist which has to be constantly repositioned from mouth to ear, making an already twitchy character seem as if he’s developed an inconvenient new spasm.

Vaughn’s made his money in electronics. His company, International Electromatics produces ubiquitous consumer gadgets which are in every home and business around the world. Back in 1993 when this story was released on VHS, this all seemed a bit far fetched. But as I write this on my iPad before checking my iPhone, it now seems prescient. Steve Jobs as a ranting, tyrannical magnate, hurling insults at his subordinates and hypnotizing people via their handheld devices until they become passive, obedient cult followers? I can see it.

The Cybermen are mere guest stars in Vaughn’s story. Think of this as their Revelation of the Daleks, where the monsters are kept in the background and the chief villain gets the limelight. They don’t even turn up until the cliffhanger of Episode 4, and when they do, they are kept as a mysterious presence lurking in the background. We get no scene of the Doctor confronting them. No scenes of them discussing their plans. Indeed, they get very few lines at all (Although there is the Cyber Planner, a free standing talking whatsit that attentive viewers might have remembered from The Wheel in Space. This collection of wires and tubes is kept in a cupboard by Vaughn and is wheeled out from time to time to discuss plot details.). This was the Cybermen’s fifth story in just over two years, so a little variation from their standard modus operandi was probably due.

The major variation was the addition of a human villain to complement those Cybermen. This is an approach trialled in The Tomb of the Cybermen, but in that story, the human bad guys were in addition to, not in partnership with the monsters. So it’s really Vaughn and The Invasion that set the template for nearly all Cybermen stories to come. It’s not until Closing Time that the Cybermen go solo again. And you can see why; the Cybermen are tin cans. It’s hard to get some drama going with talking tin cans, so you need a human nasty to chew some scenery.

The other story it harkens back to is The Dalek Invasion of Earth (our very first random one year ago!).  The Daleks invaded London and marched across Westminster Bridge. The Cybermen invade London and walk down the steps St. Paul’s cathedral. Well, you go somewhere, you see the sights, right? They’re clip show moments.

But more than that, these two stories are sixties blockbusters. Lots of action sequences, lots of location filming and the sense that all stops are really being pulled out. You only have to look at this stories around The Invasion to see that this is story that got all the attention. I wonder if we had The Invasion‘s two missing episodes back would this appear even more of an epic, what with Episode 1’s escape from the IE compound, and Episode 4’s rescue of Zoe and Isobel by helicopter.

My point? That The Invasion is often identified as a template for the Doctor Who  stories which came after it. But just as important as its influence on the future, is its drawing on the past. But to be fair, it’s influence on future Who still hasn’t expired. Dark Water/Death in Heaven after all pays homage to it by repeating the St Paul’s steps sequence. It’s a sign that we’ll still be talking about The Invasion for some time yet.

LINK to… See last time.

NEXT TIME… Well, this is gay! Time to get crabby with The Macra Terror.

Friendship, cleverness and The Lodger (2010)

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Part One: Buddies

Here’s an unusual way to start a Random Whoness post:

NEXT TIME… Don’t look so worried. Fancy a cup of tea? It’s more Cyber hijinks in The Invasion.

My random Who generator sometimes throws up these inconveniences. Obviously, it would have been very helpful to talk about the obvious connections between The Wheel in Space and The Invasion. But here’s The Lodger stuck in the middle, and on first glance it has very little to do with its two Cyber bookends. But then there’s this:

LINK to The Wheel in Space and The Invasion: they all feature ‘buddies’. That is, the combinations of Troughton/Hines and Smith/Corden would fit right into a buddy comedy.

Your classic buddy film, comedy or otherwise, features two main characters, usually men and usually from different backgrounds, with contrasting approaches to problems, forced to work together and through which they form an oddball friendship. Think 48 Hours or Wayne’s World.  Doctor Who‘s  tendency to match the Doctor with a female companion tends to work against the buddy comedy format. But The Lodger is a genuine stab at it.

It’s a story of two men trying to understand each other’s worlds; Craig (James Corden) gradually unpicking the mysteries of his new lodger, and the Doctor (lanky, loping Matt Smith) trying to work out how to fit in what we would call a normal life. This last aspect becomes a theme of Smith’s tenure. It pops up again and again, notably in The Power of Three and The Doctor, The Widow etc. It’s a terrific conceit because when looked at objectively, the Doctor’s life is bewilderingly crazy. And when looked at objectively, most modern life is too. The Lodger seems to be saying the real world is just as mad as the Doctor’s, depending on your perspective.

It works nicely because both Corden and Smith can bring the funny. An important part of the buddy pairing is that there’s no straight man; both buddies are funny in their own different ways. We’re quite happy to watch either one of them on screen, although as viewers, we’re positioned to side with Corden and view the Doctor as a funny, alien fish out of water. And from the DVD extras we know that Corden and Smith are great mates, and that chemistry is evident on screen. It doesn’t seem that big a leap to imagine that Corden might have been persuaded to do a Catherine Tate, and go from one off guest star to ongoing companion for a year.

It would have been an interesting and innovative combination for Doctor Who. A year of buddy comedy. It would have really subverted the series norm or Doctor/Girl. We have to look right back to the Troughton years to find a similar pairing, and that’s the Doctor and Jamie. Like the Doctor and Craig, they are both funny, both capable of holding the audience’s attention and the chemistry between the actors is evident. And of course, all four act like overgrown teenagers, so in each pairing there’s a sense of men behaving badly.

So at its heart, this is a story of male friendship. But…

Part Two: Forehead slap.

Look, I love The Lodger. Everyone loves The Lodger. It’s like that cheery, boozy mate we all have. The one who hangs about a lot, cracks some jokes, gets into a few scrapes but is always up for a good time. He’s brilliant. But you don’t spend too long in this mate’s company. Look too closely, and the shine goes off him a bit.

Here’s what I mean. Part of what The Lodger does is show how the Doctor would react to adopting an everyday suburban life. And it turns out, he’s rubbish at it. Hilarity ensues. Oh that daffy old Doctor. He doesn’t know how much rent to pay. He doesn’t know what football is. He can’t remember why he’s called the Doctor.

But as funny as all this stuff is, we have to ignore much of what we know about the Doctor to make it work. We know he’s not this dumb. He’s spent loads of time in contemporary Britain – more than he spends anywhere else (he was exiled there once, remember). So he knows you don’t air kiss everyone you meet.  Of course he does. Just as he knows that screwdrivers don’t have on switches. He’s a genius, remember? No, on second thoughts, forget it. Because that would spoil the joke.

We also have to ignore the way a Doctor Who story normally works. The threat in this story is an alien spaceship lodged on top of Craig’s house, threatening to spin the TARDIS off into oblivion, with Amy inside it. What the Doctor would normally do is go upstairs and sort it out. Indeed, this is what Amy keeps telling him to do. But no, says the Doctor, it’s too dangerous, I don’t know what it is, I need more info. I’ll just build a wacky machine and talk to this cat instead. Because if I do the most logical thing and behave in the way I normally do, the story will end after about 10 minutes.

Part Three: Ooh that’s a bit clever

But you can’t stay mad at that loopy, boozy mate of yours for long, and so it is with The Lodger. Look at the way Craig is suddenly brought up to speed with everything he needs to know about the Doctor, the TARDIS and the situation at hand. Three big head butts. Funny, but saves precious minutes of dull exposition.

And there’s one particular bit of plotting which is inspired. It starts in the terrific scene where Craig is hoping for a canoodly night in with Sophie (the brilliant Daisy Haggard, see her be hilarious in Episodes if you haven’t already), but the Doctor has unwittingly gatecrashed (oh that silly old Doctor, and so on). ‘Six billion people’, he muses at one point. ‘Watching you two at work, I’m starting to wonder where they all come from’, which is pretty rich coming from the chief gooseberry.

Anyway, the Doctor then tricks Sophie into reconsidering her limited world view:

DOCTOR: Everybody’s got dreams, Sophie. Very few are going to achieve them, so why pretend?  Perhaps, in the whole wide universe, a call centre is about where you should be.

SOPHIE: Why are you saying that? That’s horrible.

DOCTOR: Is it true?

SOPHIE: Of course it’s not true. I’m not staying in a call centre all my life. I can do anything I want.

(The Doctor smiles at Sophie)

SOPHIE: Oh, yeah. Right. Oh, my God. Did you see what he just did?

A lovely piece of dialogue but it includes a hidden plot point which pays off when the Doctor, Craig and Sophie discover the spaceship upstairs. The ship is looking for a pilot, and luring innocent people to their deaths to test them out for the role. The Doctor realises it doesn’t want Craig and…

DOCTOR: It didn’t want Sophie before but now it does. What’s changed? I gave her the idea of leaving. It’s a machine that needs to leave. It wants people who want to escape.

And as preposterous as a spaceship dependent on its pilot wanting to leave is – or perhaps it’s just a little too thematically perfect to ring true – I think the Doctor planting the idea in Sophie’s mind which will eventually be the key to solving the mystery, is neat writing. And hiding it in a jokey, seemingly inconsequential scene is very skillful. Hidden in plain sight, to use a Moffatism.

That funny old mate of ours is a bit smart too. But then, that’s why we’re buddies.

LINK to… Oh, we’ve already done this bit.

NEXT TIME… Oh, we’ve already done this bit too.

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